Tuesday 27 November 2012

A non-believer in search of a church that does not change

I wanted my younger boy to become a household name, but my wife refused to have him christened Cillit Bang.

That’s not strictly true, though we did have both our sons baptised in the Church of England, which also married us. All in services conducted by a delightful reverend gentleman using the wonderful language of the Book of Common Prayer.

A 1662 BCP christening in 2012. Now you don't see a lot of those about.

No small achievement these days, when the Church’s desire to “get with the programme” and be “down with the kids” so often means ditching words as beautiful as anything in Shakespeare in favour of something with all the majesty and mystery of an online shopping list.

Going to a parish church these days is a lottery. One may find a group of well-dressed elderly folk mumbling their way through a 1662 Holy Communion, or a church so filled with bells, smells and genuflections that even a Renaissance Pope might wonder whether things were not going slightly over the top.

Or one may chance upon a crowd of shining-eyed enthusiasts in leisurewear swaying and clapping to the twanging of guitars.

The last is naturally my pet hate. Because what I want above all from the Church of England is that it should not change. That it should be all Prayer Book and Hymns Ancient and Modern, bicycling vicars wearing proper dog collars (and Panama hats in the summer), and dear old ladies cutting fresh flowers and polishing the brasses.

Technically this appears to be a motorbike - but it's the best Google could come up with

And really I should have no say in any of this because, while I happily recite the creed and tick the “Christian” box on any form that comes my way, I do not in my heart believe the pillars of the faith to be literally true.

I would very much like it to be so, and hope my religious convictions may yet strengthen on my deathbed, but right now my belief in the virgin birth and resurrection is not much above par with my confidence in the reality of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.

Which I would very much like to be true, too.

I suspect that most of us, in Britain in 2012, are in a similar place with regard not just to the Church of England but to religion in general, though we carefully steer clear of saying so to those faith groups that threaten to kill us if we disagree with them.

No such danger with the sweet old CofE, of course, which bears the added burden of being an established, State church. So that Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu and atheist commentators all feel entitled to submit their two pennorth on its little local difficulty in the matter of women bishops.

Rarely can so many words have been generated on an issue that matters so little to most of us. I have seen angry letters to the press condemning “dinosaur” male bishops (who were almost universally in favour of the change) and supposedly intelligent columnists feigning ignorance of the apparently comical concept of “Laity”.

Most, including right-on Dave our Prime Minister, seem to regard it as a simple issue of progress and equal opportunities, paying scant regard to the fact that some of the staunchest opponents of female bishops appear to be women.

As if things weren't bad enough, pedants assert that the new Archbishop doesn't know how to wear a mitre properly

Having looked into the Byzantine structure of the General Synod, and the requirement for a two-thirds majority in all its three houses to pass any substantive change, the puzzle is surely not that women bishops failed to pass over the hurdle but that it has ever managed to agree on anything at all.

As one of nature’s conservatives, I feel that it is a model that might usefully be adopted more widely in local and national government.

But it surely cannot be right for those of us who do not truly believe to criticise those who do, and who are doing their best to act in accordance with what they imagine to be God’s will.

I have no confidence that it will do the slightest bit of good, but I feel that I should now seek out a suitably quiet and happily unmodernised church, and offer up a little prayer for them all.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Useful results of the Police and Crime Commissioner elections

Despite my well-publicised misgivings about the usefulness of the post, I did cast a vote in last week’s Police and Crime Commissioner elections.

In fact I cast two, the Government having chosen to interpret our decisive rejection of the Alternative Vote in elections for MPs as not applying to any other elections they might dream up.

I imagine that if the nation ever votes in a referendum against our continued membership of the European Union, that result will be similarly construed in a way that means we remain members of the EU after all.

On the other hand, if a “first past the post” contest had been run last week, we would have been deprived of the joy of seeing Humberside reject John Prescott, which many felt was the only thing that prevented the £100m spent on the poll being a total waste of money.

My own voting did not go smoothly. Turning up at the polling station early in the morning, and receiving the undivided attention of the four council staff on duty, I was told that I could not vote as my name did not appear on the electoral register.

Which was odd, as I knew for a fact that I had renewed my registration online back in August. Subsequent telephone conversations with the local council confirmed that this was indeed the case. But, before I had done so, a canvasser employed to chase up registrations had called at our house and demanded that my wife sign a form and hand it back there and then.

Which she declined to do. Partly because she was busy, partly because no one likes being bullied by officialdom on their own doorstep, but mainly because we were going to look at another house to rent in another part of the county the following day, and it surely made sense to know where we were going to be living on the due date in October before adding our names to an electoral roll.

We quickly decided not to move because the estate agent marketing our possible new home had omitted to mention, among its many attractions, that it was located on a busy main road. But that unsigned form duly made its way back to the council some time later, and it may be useful to others to know that “refused to sign as may be moving” apparently trumps having actually registered online in the meantime.

Having sorted that out, I was at least comforted by the warm personal greeting I received from the staff at the polling station in the evening. Almost as though they had not received any other visitors since I left them ten hours earlier.

And, in truth, the turnout showed that there had been few enough. Though my wife had pitched up during the afternoon, accompanied by a baby and a very excited little boy.

“Where are we going, Mummy?” Charlie had asked as he was buttoned into his coat and strapped into the car.


“Oh great, I love voting!” he announced enthusiastically, which thoroughly puzzled Mrs Hann right up to the moment when she had put her form in the ballot box and announced that it was time to go back home.

Charlie’s face fell and his bottom lip trembled.

“But Mummy, we haven’t even been out on the water,” he complained.

So a three year-old boy learned the important difference between voting and boating, and a 74 year-old with two Jags failed to land a second job to add to his representation of the Labour party in the House of Lords.

Oh, and 41 people around the country gained roles that almost no one particularly wanted them to have, paying up to £100,000 a year, setting the priorities for cutting crime in their areas.

I would have been happy to give my advice to the Chief Constable on this free of charge, but I imagine that nicking the bad people who murder, maim, steal and vandalise would have been deemed overly simplistic.

Northumbria's new Police and Crime Commissioner and scourge of bogus charity bag collectors Vera Baird - sadly not in the uniform for her new job

And I suppose it is good to know that, in Northumbria at least, bogus charity bag collectors are now quaking in their boots.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Dumbing down politics to the level of "I'm A Celebrity"

The great British public loves voting: the entire weekend TV entertainment schedule, from The X-Factor to I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, is based on that simple fact.

More than 11 million of us tuned in on Sunday evening to enjoy the self-inflicted humiliation of Conservative MP Nadine Dorries in the Australian jungle, no doubt particularly looking forward to the appearance on the menu of the customary marsupial unmentionables. There will surely never be a better excuse for a heartfelt nationwide cheer of “Go Nad!”

And yet, at the same time, the great British public hates voting when it comes to trekking out to some dimly hit church hall on a dank November evening to make a cross on a piece of paper with a blunt pencil stub.

Which is why it is so widely predicted that turnout for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections this Thursday will make the notion that the winners possess a democratic mandate completely laughable.

The mechanics of this election have been dreadfully handled. The timing could hardly be worse unless they had chosen to hold it on Christmas Day.

Because my work takes me away from home a great deal, I have long been on the electoral register at two different addresses. As I write three days before the vote, I have not received a polling card at either of them.

I have no idea whatsoever who is standing in one area, and am only dimly aware of two candidates in the other, though I believe that there are others.

What has the Government done to inspire me or anyone else to go out and vote? Indeed, what is the point of this exercise at all?

Where was the popular demand for us to vote for the people in charge of our police forces? Did some bright spark in a think tank note that the Americans vote for their sheriffs, and conclude that we should import the concept here?

Where is the evidence that the current system of oversight by police authorities is failing, or that their replacement by individuals is going to achieve anything useful?

Particularly when the brilliantly designed system has managed to debar some seemingly promising independent candidates on the grounds of trifling childhood misdemeanours, while holding the door ajar for superannuated Westminster politicians we fondly imagined we had dismissed from public life forever.

Vera Baird, defeated as MP for Redcar in 2010 on the biggest anti-Labour swing in the UK; now Labour's candidate as Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria

The only explanation I can see is the same one underpinning the Government’s desire to inflict elected mayors on as many communities as possible (and don’t imagine for a moment that having voted against this once will be the end of it).

We are assumed to be far too thick to see beyond one high profile individual, or to understand the workings of a council, committee, cabinet or Parliament.

Why settle for a dull old Watch Committee when you could have another Boris?

It is the application to the world of politics of the same shallow celebrity culture that dominates the TV schedules and the popular press, and I loathe it as fervently as I detest the sort of creepy-crawlies whose starring roles ensure that I will never willingly watch I’m A Celebrity.

I am old enough to remember when Clive James used to mock exactly this sort of thing by running clips from a hideous Japanese TV game show called Endurance, which I used to watch through clasped fingers with the horrified superiority of one who mistakenly believed that his own culture would never stoop so low.

Perhaps, of course, our leaders are right, and we really are this dumb. In which case, may I respectfully suggest that the next round of Police and Crime Commissioner elections is held on prime-time TV, with candidates afforded an opportunity to explain themselves and voting lines opened so that we may express an opinion from the comfort of our armchairs?

Because if they are determined to make public service a branch of celebrity culture, that is surely the only way to go. We might even introduce a bush tucker trial and induce Nadine Dorries to stand for election.

Because, let’s face it, she is highly likely to be looking for another job if she ever returns from Down Under.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Collect things only for pleasure, not for profit

Every time I glance at the Antiques Roadshow they seem to be fetching smelling salts for some delighted old biddy who has just discovered that the chipped bowl she uses to serve the dog’s dinner is worth several thousand pounds.

I always think “That could be me”, in the same deluded spirit that keeps me buying National Lottery tickets.

Because, over the years, I have accumulated vast quantities of old tat that I always believed I could sell at a profit one day. After all, they were usually limited editions, in the case of books, coins and prints. Or implausibly well preserved examples of rare, collectable toys.

It turns out that Bernie Madoff was offering far better and safer returns on investment than my loft full of this stuff

I discovered my mistake in the matter of books a few years ago, when I carefully conveyed a box of duplicate titles to a local dealer. When I had been buying, many of these had been very valuable first editions in exceptional condition. Now I was selling, there was no demand and most of them were only good for recycling: since it was me, they could stretch to £20 for the lot.

Last week it was model railways and coins. My extensive collection of the former is apparently now worth less than half what I paid for it 20 or more years ago, while the best thing I could do with most of my cherished coin collection is prise open the presentation cases, take the coins down to the shops and spend them.

This seemed odd, when the insurance company “expert” who insisted on coming to my house a year or more ago sucked through his teeth at all the immensely valuable stuff I owned, and how desperately underinsured it was. He even insisted that I install a burglar alarm as a condition of my continued and inflated cover.

Surely it cannot be the case that insurers are in league with the conmen who peddle this stuff in trying to persuade us that we are making an investment rather than simply squandering our money?

There is, I confess, one exception to the general rule. The few gold sovereigns I have acquired over the years have appreciated very nicely indeed. Though it turns out – surprise, surprise – that I was a mug to pay a premium for the Royal Mint’s beautifully presented proof sets, because they are worth not a penny more than the bog standard bullion versions of the self-same coins.

Quite possibly the only useful advice ever contained in this column: don't pay the extra for the polished coin in the nice box

Now I do, as it happens, know a man who wanted to get rid of the tiresome collection of Japanese miniatures that his late father had picked up in junk shops for a song over many years. And discovered, to his utter amazement, that it was worth more than a million pounds.

What’s more, that was the sum the collection realised at auction, not that ascribed to it by some wildly over-optimistic insurance assessor.

But that is as much the exception to the rule as the couple who buy a ticket for only the second time in their lives and scoop the Euromillions jackpot.

For the rest of us, the rule must be to laugh at those vendors of the “heirlooms of tomorrow” as heartily as we do at the spoof versions of their advertisements in Viz.

Only buy things because you like them, and feel that your enjoyment of life will be enhanced by having them around you. Never because you fancy for a moment that you may one day be able to make money from them.

The same rule should be applied, with added emphasis, when choosing a place to live.

Luckily it is not all doom and gloom. Two small boys will no longer be denied the pleasure of playing with vintage Hornby Dublo trains that I wrongly thought were much too valuable to be used for the purpose for which they were intended. In due course they may also look forward to inheriting a moderately interesting coin collection, too.

I also expect to make a huge saving on next year’s household insurance bill that I look forward to investing in something with truly lasting value. Like a lottery ticket, for example. 

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.